The Itchy and Scratchy Show
It's the small, relatively unheralded release of a four million dollar film--gargantuan by Philippine standards (most medium-sized productions run about half a million dollars or so), but practically peanuts by Hollywood's, where 'small' films run from twenty to forty million dollars. And it's easily the single best thing William Friedkin's ever done.
Yep; you heard me. Not a big fan of The French Connection (simpleminded adaptation of what actually was a very complex case--tho to be fair, Friedkin has a gift for shooting fast-moving vehicles), basically felt that The Exorcist just wasn't evil enough, and no, didn't think Sorcerer other than the appalling squalor of the opening sequences was all that good (check out the original by Clouzot), so I'm not acting as some kind of Friedkin fanboy, or apologist--I just honestly think this is the single best picture Friedkin's been involved in, hands down.
The dramaturgy is obvious enough--Ashley Judd is Agnes, a lonely woman working as a waitress in a lesbian bar; Harry Connick, Jr. is Jerry, her former husband turned convict fresh out of jail, who provides the incentive for Agnes to run to Michael Shannon (reprising the role he originated onstage) who in turn Peter Evans, the polite yet somehow unsettling war veteran and drifter who walks into their lives.
It gets worse from there; Evans could have walked in out of any Philip K. Dick novel, but his obsession over all things insectlike (egg-laying, biting aphids are an especially favorite topic) mark him as perhaps a citizen of one of Dick's later works. Actor-playwright Tracy Letts may deny it or not, but watching Shannon desperately slap away the crawling creatures covering his body you can't help but think of the opening scene in A Scanner Darkly, where Charles Freck scrubs his skin raw with a wire brush.
Dick is a master at depicting paranoid schizophrenia, and at one point that's a doctor's diagnosis of Evans' condition. Shannon's performance as Evans makes the film ostensibly different--he's sweet-natured enough that you understand why Agnes takes to him, but there's something coiled inside him, something not quite kosher that you can't put a finger on (at least not until the aphids start biting) that keeps you tense, ready to jump out of your seat. It's as if Travis Bickle where considerably more socially adept but still missing a few synapses, and you can sense the disconnect.
But if Evans is the baroque touch that sets the play apart from most other chamber dramas, Agnes is the mediating consciousness through which the story is filtered, and it's Agnes' fate that ultimately concerns us. I've read several articles on the film that mourn just how unlucky Agnes is with men, switching from a wife-beater to a full-on psychotic, or how the film is making some kind of statement on the readiness of victimized women to believe in someting impractical, just to deny--or at least temporarily escape--their own reality (seems to me I've known my share of these women all my life)...but there seems to be another, possibly more interesting way to look at this material, and the clue would come from author J.G. Ballard.
I've always loved his early disaster novels--The Crystal World is possibly my favorite--but perhaps the strangest element in the novels (and short stories, for that matter) are the protagonists' motives for doing what they do. Survival is actually not as important as the need to assimilate and perhaps integrate into their minds the nature and full meaning of their circumstances (flood, high wind, crystallization). In short, more important than food and shelter is the gift of understanding, and of belonging in one's radically altered world.
Thus Agnes' story. She's running away from her violent husband, yes, but finding Evans isn't a tragedy, it's a triumph. Evans manages to make her world make sense to her; manages to give her an all-encompassing enemy on which she can pin all her troubles and sufferings--and the troubles and sufferings of the entire world along the way--and she embraces his offering with the fervor of a truly lost woman. Never mind that the path Evans offers is ultimately self-destructive--survival is just not a priority.
I'm not being perverse; or at least, I'm being no more perverse than Ballard, who in Crash managed to find sexual pleasure in the gaping wounds and mangled limbs and massive bruises found in car-crash victims (in this Ballard anticipated the automobile apoethesis of Princess Diana--possibly the only truly interesting event in her otherwise tabloid life). For Ballard inner space is the only space worth exploring, and it's the landscape of the cerebrum and spinal cord that holds any fascination; an extreme pathological case such as Agnes'--and I submit that only Agnes would hold any lasting interest--seems almost ready-made for inclusion in the ranks of his all-too-strange literature.
Agnes' way of willing herself into a perfect (and perfectly self-destructing) love is just the kind of mental jiu-jitsu that Ballard's protagonists perform, and Evans' insane scenarios are just the kind of apocalypticaly paranoid situations Dick's protagonists find themselves in. You might say Agnes is a Ballard protagonist trying to create her way out of a Dickian situation.
Friedkin's direction couldn't be better; I can't before this imagine Friedkin as being a particularly appropriate filmmaker to translate Ballard, much less Dick, to the big screen but he seems to have performed the for me near-impossible task of doing both, and in the same film. It might be helpful in a limited sense to remember that he's dealt with single-room dramas before (the final half hour of The Exorcist) and even dealt with crazed war vets before ("Nightcrawlers," one of the more memorable episodes in the short-lived Twilight Zone TV revival), but evoking the spirit of two of the strangest, most philosophically complex writers in all of science fiction--that's quite a feat.
It helps that Friedkin helps maintain the claustrophobia of the setting--enhances it, in fact, knowing that confining much of the story in Agnes' little motel room is key to the film's power (he seems to be operating on the principle that a stew cooks much faster in a smaller covered pot than it does in a large uncovered one). It also helps that his sound design is superb--the overhead ceiling fan becomes a storm of rotor blades a la Apocalypse Now; the hiss of the creaky air-conditioner can almost be mistaken for the seething hiss of bugs crawling through the carpet. Even the sex is superbly realized; you see here as you so rarely see in other Hollywood films the sticky languor of fucking in ninety-degree temperatures--the dripping sweat, the stretched saliva rope, the moist skin glowing with trapped heat. Occasionally for punctuation Friedkin would zoom in--not the dizzying zooms of '70s cinema, but a quick, half-hearted zoom, almost like a hiccup. Don't know what to make of that--a holdover from his '70s filmmaking, or something he's just trying on for size?
As for the cast--Harry Connick Jr. adds to his gallery of wonderfully disreputable characters; Shannon is almost frighteningly self-contained, you can't imagine him having any life outside of his character's. As for Judd, she does the kind of intense, take-no-prisoners acting that Charlize Theron won one of those gold doorstops for, only here Judd doesn't resort to stunt makeup--the performance of her career, easy. Wonderful, intriguing film.